Conversation Pieces

There is something I think quite special about art that works on different levels, and/or says different things to different people. This goes for older artforms – people are often affected in different ways when looking at the same picture or sculpture or listening to the same music. Some of the best movies I have seen in recent years were equally accessible to children and to adults (although sometimes we might laugh or cry at different times, which can be both embarrassing and hilarious). I’m not saying it is a great movie, but the gag in the Lego Batman movie about previous big screen incarnations raised guffaws from yours truly and one other bloke in the  cinema but sailed over the heads of the mostly pre-teen audience (one of those ‘oh dear, we seem to have forgotten the children again’ moments as I and the Lovely Wife like to refer to them).

Sometimes I mistake the effect that something might have. I have several things I am passionate about that I feel I pretty much foist on my long-suffering Lovely Wife. Certain gigs. Making her watch certain TV series that are important to me and I want to share with her, so I can have a proper conversation about them. I try and keep the quality fairly high if possible. I’m not going to make her watch Highlander 2: The Quickening. Frankly, no one should have that horror inflicted on them (indeed, I judge that terrible piece of misjudged celluloid to be the only movie I have considered walking out of, and in that case, it has had plenty of competition over the years).

But, sometimes I’m wrong about what she thinks.

Last night we had the joy of attending a performance at the Barbican in London featuring the author Neil Gaiman and the BBC Symphony Orchestra – which will go out on Radio 3 and Radio 4 before Christmas. ‘Playing in the Dark’ was a mixture of readings from Gaiman’s writing and short accompanying pieces from the orchestra, mostly crowd pleasers like Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’. It was a packed house, and the orchestra seemed to be enjoying themselves, as the Lovely Wife and I tried to work out what some of the more unusual instruments were (I guessed a Contrabassoon, but what I know about instruments would not fill the back of a postage stamp, I having failed abjectly to even manage the recorder at school).

Now, I have dragged the Lovely Wife along to several Gaiman related events and always assumed that she was humouring me. It turns out she enjoys his work too – and he is pretty mesmeric when reading from his own material. But maybe we get different things. One of the readings was the story ‘The Man who forgot Ray Bradbury’ a story that Neil wrote for Ray himself to be read at his bed side when he was 91. For me it is a story full of references to Bradbury’s eclectic SF output, and the fun was spotting them. For the Lovely Wife – who has not read these books – it was the emotion in the story, the passion and frustration of someone who may be suffering from dementia but resolutely fighting it with intelligence and humour. Basically, it is a damn fine piece of writing and for me, like the best of any art, it leaves you with much to talk about afterwards. Art can make you laugh, cry, offend you or make feel like a high-flying bird, but if it has any worth it must impact you somehow. And the difference that might be felt in that impact gives us something else to talk about (because even for Brits chatting about the weather does get old sometimes)

A Rose By Any Other Name

London is full of surprises. Some of them are even nice ones, that can make you smile or remind you of something you had forgotten. One such surprise was happened upon by the Lovely Wife and I a few weeks ago as we were trying not to walk into tourists on a busy South Bank near London Bridge. As we moved along, we were confronted by a board at the entrance to a side street leading away from the river. It informed us that the Rose theatre was open for visiting, with a helpful arrow inviting us to leave the crowds behind and explore what intrigue might be lying just around the corner.

The fact it claimed ‘free entry’ was also a pull, obviously. That never hurts.

It took a few moments to locate a rather ordinary doorway into an ugly late 1980s building (was not looking too enticing, free or not). We were ushered in by some friendly older volunteer types (I feel I can say that as I am on at Wrest Park, and there is a definite kind of person and attitude that means you are prepared to give up hours of your time for something you are passionate about). And there, in the semi darkness, under water and seen through thick glass, was the – foundations of – the Rose theatre.

It dates from 1587 and was one of handful of purpose-built theatres from that time (predating the original Globe for example by some years). For the 15 or so years it was active it was hugely popular and home to both plays by Shakespeare and in particular Christopher Marlowe; but by 1606 it had vanished. Then in 1989 the foundations were discovered during redevelopment of the area. Importantly, what was uncovered turned out to be more extensive and better preserved then people had thought, and the tide turned from excavation and subsequent destruction to whether the remains could and should be preserved.

It was as we were listening to the story and subsequent talks on the site and Elizabethan dress (apparently, they have a revolving series of talk topics) that we both remembered the kerfuffle around the remains and the efforts to save them (which I, certainly, had forgotten about). As well as the archaeologists, this campaign was spearheaded by the acting fraternity, with the usual suspects such as Sam Wanamaker, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen joined by an elderly Lawrence Olivier – whose impassioned speech asking for the remains to be saved turned out to be his final public ‘performance’. The campaign, as we could see in front of us, was eventually successful and the remains are there to see in a specially constructed basement.

The trust that looks after the site hope that the site can be improved for visitors or even further excavations can happen in the future. I hope so too. Certainly, if you happen to be near London Bridge on a Saturday afternoon, look out for it. It is a little overlooked gem.

After all, it’s free.

Sing-a-Long in Protest

The Lovely Wife and I spent a very interesting Sunday evening at the Shakespeare’s Globe theatre recently – well, I say The Globe, but the ‘performance’ was in the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse, the intimate internal space, lit by candles. It is a lovely little theatre that makes you feel right in the middle of whatever performance and indeed if you are seated in the ‘Pit’ then you may well be dragged into the play.

We were there for something a bit different this time, however, an evening hat was billed as ‘Songs for the People’. It was a mixture of folk music and accompanying history from the 1400s to the present day, presented by Steve Knightley (who is half of the folk group Show of Hands) and the historian and presenter Michael Wood.

I admit that it was Wood’s involvement that interested me – I was obsessed by ‘In the Footsteps of Alexander The Great’ when much younger, a series that was more real life drama than documentary and something which showed Wood’s ability to drag you into the story – whatever it is – by enthusiasm and force of personality. I’m pleased to say that at 71 he has not lost any of that ability. Add talented musicians and a fair amount of banter (mostly along the lines of ‘Michael – we do the singing, you stick to the history, mate’ variety) and a couple of hours flew past in a whistle stop tour of the importance of song in protest and times of struggle.

Topics covered included the Black Death; the English (or as was pointed out more accurately the British) Civil War, the Tolpuddle Martyrs,  Peterloo Massacre, Chartists, Suffragettes and more with appropriate readings, illustrative songs of the period and some facts that had the audience gasping in disbelief – for example that some of those supporting the Chartist movement in the 1830s were actually convicted of Treason and sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered – in the 1830s! (eventually commuted to Transportation). Or that in the Civil War the loss of life in Britain, proportional to the population at the time, was greater than in the 1914-18 war.

Through the medium of song people have supported each other, made their needs clear and drew attention to inequality and injustice, with varying degrees of success. As was pointed out, some songs and melodies have been so powerful that they have been recycled, sometimes hundreds of years apart, when the same themes re-occur and people feel the need to say something, to give protest a voice (for example in relation to anti-war songs). Folk today continues to fly the flag, although mass singing is probably now more limited to football grounds (again, many of the tunes used on the terraces around the country are based on old folk tunes). This is because that whatever the lyrics, the songs are easy to sing. One of the most enjoyable parts of the evening was the audience joining in, sometimes invited, sometimes by itself, because  it kind of felt right to do so. Folk is at its best in a mass singalong and Michael Wood pointed out that it brings people together and, in a time of conflict and disagreement – and where inequality and lack of justice is just as prevalent as ever – maybe it is time that we all joined a song of reconciliation and hope; that just might help make things better.

Song writing friends – I know there are a few of you – go and write something special. We need it, I think.

How People Remembered

There is nothing like being surrounded by dead people to make you think about death and people’s attitude to it, and how that attitude had changed over the centuries. As well as volunteering for English Heritage at Wrest Park House and Gardens in Bedfordshire I also am part of a small number of volunteers that help people interpret the De Grey Mausoleum in Flitton, a village about a mile and half from Wrest, the home of the De Greys until 1917 (I am pretty certain I’ve blogged about this before but I’m getting old and therefore will inevitably repeat myself). In the 1600s the church a Flitton was the local Parish church so when the 7th Earl of Kent decided to create a mausoleum for the family it was added to the North side of the chancel.

Family mausolea of this period are an odd beast. Unlike a monument in a church aisle the mausoleum is for the family only; monuments in it a reminder to descendants of where they have come from and sending various additional messages that change over the years as styles and attitudes change. The De Grey Mausoleum is one of the biggest in England and has monuments from the early 1600s through to the last in 1859. It was massively increased by Henry, 12th Earl and 1st Duke of Kent – more on him later – and one of things I enjoy is being able to show people how the monuments change over time.

The earliest monuments hang over from the Medieval view of reminding people they are mortal, and death comes to us all, no matter how important you are. It is adorned with skulls and almost in a black comic manner, a colourful hourglass with wings – time flying, indeed. Next to this chest tomb is another from the late 1600s – a man and a woman’s effigy lying in state but now carved with more elegance and the shock tactics have been dropped in the 5o years between them.

When the Duke of Kent quadrupled the size of the Mausoleum he was at the height of his power, having been Lord Chamberlain and having elevated the family to a Dukedom. His monument is massive and of the highest quality, an Eighteenth-century hymn to achievement. He lies full sized reclining, dressed as a Roman general. Now it is not so much about death as about what was achieved in life.

Unfortunately for Henry and the De Greys, the one thing he could not achieve was a legacy. All his children pre-deceased him and with no male heir the Dukedom passed back to the Crown (the current Duke of Kent being a member of the Royal family is a regular source of confusion for visitors, who assume there must be some Royal connection).  The monuments to his children in my eyes become smaller and speak more of the sadness of a powerful man facing the inevitability that there was nothing he could do to save his family. In the end, he secures the title of Marchioness for his remaining descendant, his granddaughter Jemima.

The monuments to her and her two daughters, now late 1700s and creeping into the Nineteenth Century are best described as modest and elegant; these are still monuments to powerful and wealthy people, but as they sit on the wall opposite the huge monument to Henry, they almost seem a little embarrassed by the bombastic excess.

My favourite monuments are the last ones installed before the family moved away and stopped using the mausoleum. Thomas, 2nd Earl De Grey, inherited the Wrest Estate from his aunt and set about designing his own house to replace the old one for himself and his Countess Henrietta. Henrietta, who died first, is seen being carried up to heaven by an angel as Thomas stands among other mourners, his head in his hands. To the left, he himself lies in state, full size and realistically carved, looking as though he might just get up and walk away at any time (it is a source of some amusement that we have to put an old bed sheet over Thomas when we lock up to prevent his effigy being degraded by the droppings of resident bats).

Both monuments drip with Victorian Romanticism, that death is merely sleep until the Resurrection, and anyway we’ll be united with our loved ones in heaven.

The De Grey Mausoleum is open 2-4pm the first Sunday of the month through the Summer and on occasional Wednesdays, bets to check the website Admission is free.


Seeing Things (Or Not)

I have kind of slipped out of the habit of rambling at the internet each week, so I thought I would try and pick it up again, at least when I have something I think may be vaguely interesting to say/talk about/recommend. We will see how it goes. Certainly, summer holidays are a good time for projects for us, as not having kids means that these weeks can be quite quiet. Although for some reason this year has not been quite the respite we might have hoped for after the events and emotions of last year.

The Lovely Wife and I are quite partial to the hidden and the quirky and one of the places I have wanted to visit for several years is Dennis Severs house in Spitalfields. Dennis Severs was an artist who passed away in 1999.  His home had been 18 Folgate Street, a four floored Eighteenth century town house in East London (I was very amused that it is around the corner from Norton Folgate which always makes me think of one of my favourite Madness albums – for good reason, as this is their patch). Over the years he was living there he gradually constructed his house into an art installation that was meant to evoke the life of a family of Huguenot weavers across the centuries from the Eighteenth to early Twentieth Century. It is not a museum, and it there is very little explanation, deliberately so. The staff who let us in give a brief introduction and then the rest of the visit of 45 minutes or so is carried out in silence, with the occasional paper note reminding you to ‘experience’ the house through look (the whole place is largely candlelit) and through smells and noises. It is quite an odd experience and one to chalk down to you probably get out of it what you put into it, indeed the paper notes repeatedly claim that the motto of the place is ‘You either see it, or you don’t’. As most of the promotional literature indicates it is meant to feel that the occupants of the room you have just walked into have left moments before, leaving you to imagine what was going on before you arrived through the ‘clues’ they have left behind. I found it quite odd at first, but as you go on you start to get the hang of it, for example walking into a room and just sniffing the air and listening to the aural cues before looking.

Not for everyone, but for those who like the offbeat, probably worth a look.

Additionally, Spitalfields was a bit of a revelation. In my head the area had a poor reputation and certainly in some periods has been a genuine slum. Now, Spitalfields Old market is filled with up market crafts, the buildings occupied with up market restaurant chains and hipster attracting bars. That might not sound too attractive but on the Monday evening we were there the place was buzzing and siting outside at a bar with a nice cold beer made for ample enjoyable people watching opportunities 5 minutes from Liverpool Street station. As with the Kings Cross area, this part of East London has been revitalised and had for me a very particular look, with the old Eighteenth century terraces, pubs and enamel fronted pie and fish shops set against a skyline of the business district (the Gherkin looms seemingly at the end of one of the main streets in a dramatic fashion). Two London worlds that are very different but neighbours and the main connection between them being the flow of people between them.

Links for those that might be interested, Dennis Severs House, Spitalfields Old Market and we ate at Galvin La Chapelle next to the market – expensive, but the venue, food and staff were lovely (oh, and apparently despite the name, which is actually connected to a vineyard they own, the restaurant is in a building that had been part of a hospital – Spitalfields apparent gets its name from (Ho)spital – that was later used as a girl’s school).

Here Comes The Sun, And It’s Mostly Alright

Normally an early morning run is a good experience – heaven knows I need the exercise – but for a large chunk of the year it is perhaps more of a struggle in the dark, the damp and the cold. From this time of the year for a few months though it can be an altogether happier experience – it’s light early for a start, and on good spring days like today you can have the best of both world’s – glorious bright sun and blue skies but still cool enough that overheating in that glow of the great burning orb in the sky.

There are other benefits to it being ‘nice out’ (as we might say in parts of the North). The most important of these for me is that, at least while the oncoming sun is still a bit of a novelty, so many people suddenly start smiling and treating their fellow human beings just a tiny little bit better. Certainly, that was what I observed this morning. I’m a creature that likes his routine do I will run the same routes often at similar times, so you learn to expect certain things. However, this morning people went out of there way to avoid obstructing me (maybe I am really that fat now that they think I will take up all the pavement). Drivers, normally who I expect to be completely focussed on getting to their work place and/or dropping their precious ones off at school or nursery, instead waved me across the road cheerfully. This happens to the Lovely Wife a lot (to me, not surprisingly of course), but it is not at all something I am used to. But this morning, this was the standard.

The better thing is that we all know that little kindnesses, like little cruelties, spawn more of the same. I am no different to anyone else in this respect. If someone lets me into a queue of traffic, I will be much more likely to let the next driver in as I pass on the ‘good deed’. As I ran past a lady trying to back her car out of her drive onto a busy road – her view in one direction completely blocked by an illegal parked van I felt compelled this morning to stop, go back and guide her safely out. When later in the day I was picking up my lunch in a supermarket and on overburdened old lady dropped her stick, I almost fell over myself to pick it up for her and check she was OK, before cheerfully marching back to the office, only briefly waylaid by another old lady who wanted to know the time. I can only presume she saw my previous action and assumed I was safe to approach as a clear friend of little old ladies. (The Lovely Wife will tell you that I have spent significant time helping the self esteem of little old ladies mostly in churches by patiently listening to their life stories – if I am lucky, over a cup of tea. In fact, they often have very interesting life stories…)

But of course, there is a problem here. Today, I felt happy, blessed and warmed by the sun, and wanted to pass on the love. But so many days I would have just kept running and left that driver to her own devices. I would like to think I would still be there to pick up a walking stick, but maybe I would not have noticed, and would have walked away in my own little world as someone who needed help struggled on. It is something that bothers me a lot, that I often fail the standard I expect for myself. But at least today I felt a tiny bit closer to the person I want to be in those few seconds. Thank you, Mr Blue Sky.

All Change, Please

I seem to have entered a phase of life when things are coming to an end. Usually a natural, largely expected, series of endings but endings nevertheless. Obviously some of those relate to my Father’s passing and subsequent sale of the house I grew up in; part of the upset for me on the day I finally posted the last set of keys through the door and left the place for the last time was the mind torture running up to that point, which goes along the lines of ‘this will be the last time I do/say/see [insert thing]’ which had me almost in tears a few time (much respect to the Lovely Wife for helping me keep it mostly together.

Also, I am at an age where it is unrealistic to expect everything to stay the same – it simply doesn’t and the sooner we can get our head around that fact the better we can deal with change whether that change be welcomed or hated.

But I was somewhat blind-sided last week when the hotel I was staying in announced they were closing the next morning.

I was tucking into some dinner in the hotel bar as I am wont to do on business trips to Brussels and chatting to the staff. I have been staying in this relatively small hotel off Avenue Louise for many years now. I do not remember exactly why I first stayed there – it is a good twenty-minute walk from the nearest metro station so is hardly convenient. But over the years it has grown on me and since being in Brussels is a fair chunk of my job I have stayed there enough – and the staff turnover so small – that being greeted by name and a smile when I arrive is something I have gotten used to (and I know I was not the only ‘regular’). The Lovely Wife has stayed there with me and we were delighted to find one of my favourite Brussels restaurants – in an old clock factory – was a short walk away. I have enjoyed sitting in the Bicycle themed bar (it used to show looped classic Tour De France footage) reading; and there was good running nearby at the lakes at Flagey.

Most importantly, I was staying at the hotel when the bombs went off in Brussels in March 2016. When I was turned back from the Metro station, some thirty minutes after the bomb at Maelbeck Metro station had gone off I went back to the hotel and was received with calm and allowed to return to my room. I did not leave the hotel again that day, spending most of the time listening to news updates and running on the hotel treadmill looking through the skylight of the rooftop fitness centre at perfect blue sky and wondering how that fitted really with the constant sirens of the emergency services. That evening I remember dining alone in the bar while the staff calmly carried on, despite the stress they must have been under. They were consummate professionals and any panic I may have felt was assuaged by their friendliness and care. When I could go home the next day, I took that calm with me through the enhanced security in place.

So, I admit the slightly weird feeling of being fond of the Four Points by Sheraton, Brussels. Or rather of the staff. But the chain is shutting them down, and although apparently someone has acquired the property and it will reopen in a few months it is hard not to feel that its part in my life is over, and that I should instead concentrate on the memories where a place to stay became more of a reminder of how wonderfully human a diverse group of people can be in a time of crisis.